SEATTLE – Mitch Haniger never expected to be the clean-up hitter three games into the 2018 season. And he won’t be the clean-up hitter when Nelson Cruz returns soon from a fluke ankle injury.
What Haniger will continue to be is one of the most reliable bats in the Seattle lineup, a talented right fielder who is living up to all the expectations the team has for him after 2017 gave a glimpse of what he could be.
Haniger launched a three-run homer Friday night off veteran reliever Chris Hatcher and gave the Mariners the lead in the seventh inning, helping propel them to a 7-4 victory over the Oakland Athletics at Safeco Field.
The Mariners are 7-4 for the season despite having four starters on the disabled list _ Cruz, catcher Mike Zunino, first baseman Ryon Healy and left fielder Ben Gamel.
Haniger finished with two hits and four RBI to up his average to .297 and give him 12 RBI in 11 games this season. It’s continuing what he started last year as a rookie before a gruesome injury in July slowed his progress.
Haniger was hit in the face by a 95-mph fastball from New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom. Haniger needed plastic surgery after suffering a nasal fracture, a concussion, a lacerated lip and severe facial swelling. He returned in less than a month and ended his rookie year with a .282 average, 16 homers and 47 RBI.
The Mariners envisioned big things this season for the 27-year-old outfielder, but not as a clean-up hitter. When Cruz slipped on a step and sprained his ankle during the second game of the year, Haniger has to step into that role temporarily. He didn’t change a thing.
“I don’t care where I hit,’’ Haniger said after Friday’s game. “I just stay within myself and keep the same approach. It’s not about where I’m hitting.’’
Haniger’s blast in the seventh was part of a five-run inning for the Mariners, including a two-run homer for Daniel Vogelbach, his first big-league home run.
Team officials retrieved the ball for Vogelbach. So who gets to keep the memento?
“Me for now,’’ Vogelbach said. “But I’ll probably give it to my mom and dad.”
Vogelbach had a sizzling spring training with seven homers and 15 RBI, enabling him to make the team over Mike Ford as the back-up for Healy. But Healy also went on the DL and Vogelbach was cast into the designated hitter role when Cruz was injured.
Vogelbach’s hot spring didn’t carry over to April, but his homer Friday could turn things around.
“It's everything you dream of,’’ Vogelbach said of his first home run. “Now I can just go play. It's definitely a big weight off my shoulders.”
The ability to bomb away at any moment of a game is something that makes the Seattle lineup a tough assignment for any pitcher. It’s also something that gives the Seattle pitchers added confidence, knowing the team can pick them up if they are having their best night.
Such was the case for starter Mike Leake, who gave up a two-run homer to Khris Davis in the first inning and had to battle his way out of trouble a couple of times when the A’s had two men on base with only one out.
“I like those situations sometimes,’’ Leake said. “It gets me going.”
Leake pitched six innings Friday and allowed three runs and seven hits. Mariners manager Scott Servais likes the way Leake never gives in, especially on a night like Friday when he didn’t have his best stuff.
“Mike's a really good competitor,’’ Servais said. “He knows exactly what he's doing. He knows the opponent and he knows his strengths. He will keep you in the ballgame.”
And when you have a reliever like Edwin Diaz, closing out games becomes easier as well. Diaz remains perfect after earning his fifth save Friday. Diaz has yet to give up a run in six outings and has 13 strikeouts in six innings pitched.
Despite all the injuries, the Mariners are playing impressive baseball and learning something about themselves.
“We have a really good vibe in the clubhouse right now,’’ Haniger said. “You can sense it.’’